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Tuesday, September 23, 2008 

Brown's speech.

For almost the first 500 words, Gordon Brown managed to deliver the speech that few felt he had in him: passionate, personal, introspective, admitting mistakes, and setting out what he believes, what he thinks and who he claims to be fighting for, with a clarity and purpose that he has seldom managed in the past. Ignore the fact that he still can't bring himself to call a spade a spade and refer either directly to the poor or to the working class, instead relying on those "on middle and modest incomes", and this was as powerful a rallying cry to Labour's core as has been delivered for quite some time.

Words, however, on their own do not make things better. The speech had three somewhat major policy announcements, almost all leaked in advance, and none were really satisfactory enough to back up the rhetoric. An extra billion to go towards childcare for those over two is welcome, but too late, the decision to give vouchers to the poorest without computers or internet vouchers screams of both being a gimmick and a potential vast waste of money, and the making of prescriptions free for those suffering with cancer elevates one disease above all others, hardly the equity that Brown was promising elsewhere.

After the excellent start, the speech quickly faded, enlivened only by the sycophantic, needless clapping which seemed to happen approximately every minute and a half. He received two standing ovations during it, both of which again seemed to be mainly because the delegates were applauding themselves and how great their vision and policies are rather than that of their leader's. Brown attempted throughout to insert a personal touch into what was otherwise the ever familiar reading off of brilliant successes, with the minimum wage providing a dad on security shifts with the extra money for a birthday party or the mother who doesn't have to visit the loan sharks to pay for Christmas. Both of these imaginary individuals would presumably like the minimum wage to be an actual living wage, providing them with the ability to save rather than just continually splash out, but that still is beyond the thinking of New Labour.

Almost every cabinet or junior minister got a mention, perhaps to instil the idea that they're working together as a team, or perhaps more cynically, to give them pangs of guilt if they are shortly to take their part in the coup, despite being praised by Gordon in his conference speech. David Miliband, interestingly, was mentioned, but only as part of how he and Douglas Alexander along with Brown will be helping to "bring justice and democracy, to Burma, to Zimbabwe and to Darfur", presumably again with a magic wand and the words "izzy wizzy let's get busy". Included also was the obligatory attacks on the Conservatives, mostly weak and blunt, but the two assaults that were not directly on policy were the strongest: attacking Cameron for using his children as "props", even though Brown's wife had introduced him prior to his speech, and that these times most certainly don't require a novice - targeted just as much at Miliband as at Cameron.

Did it do anywhere enough to secure Brown for now? Almost certainly not. It was a speech going through the motions, just like the conference as a whole, resolute but without any convincing backbone or the confidence that the party is not already doomed. There was nothing here that will make the plotters think twice about a political assassination, and it might come a lot quicker than some are anticipating.

Update: I wrote this in something of a hurry before going out, but I think it stands up pretty well regardless. It's always fascinating how different people can see entirely different things in a speech - according to Polly Toynbee he delighted the hall but that certainly wasn't clear when the BBC themselves asked some of the delegates what they had thought, when it was notable that they were evenly split between those that thought it was great and those that still felt Brown should go. The Sun, typically, sees some vast left-wing conspiracy which simply doesn't show up in absolutely any reading of the text. One of the least enthusiastic, or perhaps resigned was Jackie Ashley - probably the most identifiable Brownite commentator in the press. The less said about Denis MacShane and his ridiculous denunications of 80s leftists the better.

One thing I didn't mention above is just how weak Brown actually was on the one thing that he ought to be defining on: the state of the economy, or at least should be, if we were to believe those including himself demanding he stay on because of his immense experience as chancellor. It's worth quoting his five-point plan in full:

Tomorrow I and then Alistair will meet financial and government leaders in New York to make these proposals:

First, transparency - all transactions need to be transparent and not hidden

Second, sound banking, a requirement to demonstrate that risks can be managed and priced for bad times as well as good

Thirdly, responsibility - no member of a bank's board should be able to say they did not understand the risks they were running and walk away from them

Fourth, integrity - removing conflicts of interest so that bonuses should not be based on short term speculative deals but should be a reward for hard work, effort and enterprise

And fifth, global standards and supervision because the flows of capital are global, then supervision can no longer just be national it has to be global too.

Have you ever come across such a set of vague platitudes from a supposed serious politician on perhaps the ultimate issue of our time? Any vision for how Brown intends to implement these brilliant proposals on taming the market tiger was completely absent, as was likewise any real attempt to say anything of any merit on the bills which will shortly be dropping onto doorsteps, more likely than anything else to further hasten the demise of New Labour via the ballot box.

Perhaps the one thing that Brown can take heart from is that David Miliband has either been successfully making a fool of himself, with pictures splashed all across the papers of him dancing at a fringe meeting, bizarrely holding a banana and finally pulling a face whilst shaking Gordon's hand that makes Brown's own horrible, shit-eating forced grin look normal, or contributing to his own damp squib of a speech by being overheard saying he couldn't have gone further because it would have been seen as a Heseltine moment. As Simon Jenkins notes, perhaps he too like Heseltine might have overreached himself too early, and fail to pick up the position which he covets as a result. Or he could be in office within 2 months. Stranger things have happened.

Elsewhere, Justin, Dave Osler, Paul Linford and the Bleeding Heart Show all provide more comment, should you for some strange reason desire even more of a very bad thing.

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